ATLANTA –- Soon after he turned 7 years old, a defining moment surfaced for Kyle Shanahan. Many of his football Sundays had been spent frolicking with friends in backyard games. But on Jan. 11, 1987, the son of a football coach was swayed by the wife of that football coach.
"It’s funny, you grow up a coach’s kid and either you are into it or you’re not," said Shanahan, speaking of his father, Mike, who was head coach for three NFL teams and with the Denver Broncos became one of only six coaches in league history to win consecutive Super Bowls.
"A lot of cool things came with that and there were a lot of hard things about it. But it’s kind of all you know. I was into the games. But it was that Sunday in ’87 where it all changed."
It was the Sunday of "The Drive" in Cleveland, the 1987 AFC Championship game won in theatrical style by Denver. Mike Shanahan was then the Denver offensive coordinator, the sequence creator of the Broncos’ late, mystical march to victory.
Back home in Denver, Kyle Shanahan strolled in from backyard football. His mother, Peggy, had friends over, watching TV and hanging on every play in Cleveland.
"I was always into football some," Kyle Shanahan said. "But I sat for that one with mom and her friends. I came in and really got into that game. That was it for me. I was hooked. I kind of knew from that moment on that I wanted to be in football all of my life."
And, so he has.
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Shanahan was 7 years old then. He turns 37 on Dec. 14.
He is already in his ninth season as an NFL offensive coordinator and his second with the Atlanta Falcons.
In his eight previous seasons as offensive coordinator at stops including Houston, Washington and Cleveland, his offenses ranked in the league’s top 10 five times with three finishes in the top five. This one, the current Falcons splash, is the league’s No. 1 offense.
It’s No. 1 in yards per game (452.2). It’s No. 1 in points per game (32.8). It’s No. 1 in yards gained per play (6.8). It has the No. 1 quarterback, Matt Ryan, in passing yards (2,636) and passing touchdowns (19).
Atlanta has scored 30 or more points three times this season. Twice it has scored 45 or more. Falcons receiver Julio Jones has notched a 300-yard receiving game. Running back Devonta Freeman has rushed 116 times and averaged 4.7 yards per rush without fumbling.
When an NFL offense engages in a shootout with Aaron Rodgers and it’s Rodgers who blinks, well, that’s an offense worth noting. This is what happened when Atlanta beat Green Bay, 33-32, here at the Georgia Dome last Sunday to improve to a 5-3 and reside in first place the NFC South. This is the offensive sculpture the Falcons bring to Tampa Bay on Thursday night for the nation to see.
They will witness the creativity and intelligence of Shanahan as a cutting-edge offensive mind. They will see the talent and flexibility of this Falcons’ offense and how it is designed to attack and punish.
They will miss some of the warts it took to get there.
Because last season Atlanta started 6-1 and then lost six straight games. The offense still finished seventh in the league, but it wilted in scoring chances and in execution in crucial situations. There was a clear disconnect in what Shanahan wanted and in what he was able to get.
There was a disconnect with his offensive players.
"In his first year he wanted to do it his way and we had a problem gelling and realizing we had the same goals in mind," Jones said. "He is such a perfectionist. In this second year we have a complete understanding that we have the same goals in mind, that we all want to get to the Super Bowl and win it. And the way you do that, with talent, is to respect each other and listen to each other. We all talk clearly to him now. Whatever we see, we can talk about it. Now, he’s that guy."
Ryan explained: "We both understand our working relationship better. You’re going to have experiences with new people that are good and bad. He has a way about him that I like, a perfectionist, and I am, too. We both want the same things. We’ve figured out how to go get them. It’s about winning. Once you get that right, it’s a great thing. One thing we’ve come to learn — we know he is always coming from a great place."
Quality can take time. Learning a new offense can take time. Learning a personality can take time.
The results it can bring can be revealing. Exhilarating.
"People are getting to know me," Shanahan said. "I’m getting to know them. When you coordinate an offense you are trying to pull together the team, the players, the coaches, the offense. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time for the getting to know me period. You know, when you’re younger, as a very young coach, that kind of took care of itself. I guess I’m an older coordinator now, a veteran. I always listened. I’ve always been open. But guys really understand that now. As time has passed, the working relationships have grown and I’ve spent more time with players and they know. But some of that reaction in what they thought of me was kind of shocking. Sometimes, you’re the last to know. And that’s disappointing.
"We started out pretty good last year. Then we went on a six-game losing streak. We found a way to stick together. We did a lot of good statistical offensive things. But we led the league in red zone turnovers. We did not score enough points. We’re correcting that. We’ve even scored more points outside of the red zone now in eight games than we did in all 16 games last year. Guys are getting better. Guys are growing."
And so is he.
"I always adjust," Shanahan said. "I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff in a lot of different situations as a coach. They all have made me stronger and better as a coach. We’re battle tested. We know we can get through tough stuff. We have strong people here with a lot of character and talented people, too."
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Shanahan played receiver at Texas and gained his coaching break as a graduate assistant in 2003 at UCLA under Karl Dorrell. It was in Tampa Bay as a quality control coach under Jon Gruden beginning in 2004 that fueled his penchant for Xs and Os. Gruden’s playbook "had every play known to man in it," said Shanahan, and so he studied and learned the nuances of each one.
It was there where he was influenced by defensive coaches including Monte Kiffin, Mike Tomlin, and Rod Marinelli. That outside/inside approach to offense — his study of their defensive minds — helped shape the foundation of his offensive philosophies.
An offensive coordinator must have a foundation, a system, he said. An offensive coordinator must make defenses stop the running game. Put defenses in a bind. If a play works, have an opposite play that works off it. Realize that defenses react. Keep adjusting. Be willing to win a game 10-7 concentrating on minimizing mistakes. Be willing to win it 40-35 and take chances and not worry as much about mistakes. Be multiple. Be balanced.
Figure out what your people can do.
"I think that’s his real strength, being such a smart guy with great composure who can get in a zone with play calling and just kill it," Falcons receiver Aldrick Robinson said. "He understands how to put us in the places to do the things we do best. He understands what everybody does and what he wants them to do in this offense. And so do we."
Both words rise a lot with Shanahan. There is popular sentiment here that he is so far advanced in his thinking that he began in Atlanta leaving too much of the human element aside. That he is so advanced that he just expected others to be, too.
"My wife, Mandy, we’ve been married 11 years, and I can tell you she’d be the first to tell you I’m not so smart," he said. "She would tell you how many times I can’t find the car keys. That if football didn’t work out for me, I’d be in trouble. But I do think about football all of the time. It’s been my whole life. I am aggressive. I can talk football. I care about football. I’ve had a one-track mind for football for all of my life."
His daughters are Stella, 9, and Lexi, 3.
His son, Carter, 6, is nearing the age where the football bug bit his dad. A Shanahan and Falcons drive to Houston to Super Bowl 51 just might be the spark that gets Carter hooked. No doubt, his dad would recognize it.
Sometimes, you’re the first to know.